For all the talk of diversity, nothing truly walks that talk better than Christmas. And the proof is in the musical pudding: This year there really is something for everyone.
Consider Snow Globe (Mute) by the gay electronica duo Erasure. Two lumps of coal aside (“Bells of Love,” in which Andy Bell and Vince Clarke insist they don’t “believe in your religion,” and “Loving Man,” which is about what it says), the singing, instrumentation, and source material (especially the Latin carol “Gaudete”) treat the season and those who observe it devoutly with respect.
Then there’s Cocktails with Santa (Coverage) by the comedian lounge lizard Richard Cheese. Edgy humor and Christmas don’t always mix. But Cheese’s parodic stylings, reserved as they are for roasting secular chestnuts, could almost pass for sincere Rat Pack tributes. And the satirical title skit hoisting Santa on his own commercialized petard will widen the smile of anyone’s inner Grinch.
Listeners, meanwhile, who prefer the genuine martini-era article will enjoy Mad Men Christmas (Music from and Inspired by the Hit TV Series on AMC) (Concord). RJD2 (performing the futuristic Mad Men theme), Jessica Paré, and Nellie McKay are anachronisms included to appeal to Mad Men’s youthful demographic; but Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, and Darlene Love bridge the generation gap.
Even the various-artists omnibus Punk Goes Christmas (Fearless) provides tidings of comfort and joy. It kicks off with New Found Glory’s sentimental singalong “Nothing for Christmas,” peaks with Man Overboard’s sped-up cover of the Kink’s “Father Christmas,” and winds down with William Beckett’s imaginatively reverent “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
But it’s not only hipsters who’ll get yuletide surprises or laughs this year.
Duck the Halls: A Robertson Family Christmas (EMI Nashville) by the Robertson Family of Duck Dynasty fame, will sound like gold, frankincense, and mirth to anyone heartened by the popularity of outspokenly conservative members of a Louisiana Church of Christ who look like ZZ Top. Corny jocularity abounds, but on “Silent Night” the Robertsons sound like serious carolers worth their cocoa. And, the contributions of Alison Krauss notwithstanding, it’s Willie Robertson’s 16-year-old daughter Sadie who shines on the sweet and creatively arranged “Away in the Manger.”
Speaking of creative arrangements, Phillips, Craig & Dean’s Hope for All the World (Fair Trade/Columbia) finds the CCM trio harmoniously sinking their exuberant pop-vocal chops into freshly polished renditions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “The First Noel,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman/We Three Kings.” Middle of the road Phillips, Craig & Dean may be, but so are Christmas parades. And PG&D’s leads to a tastefully spotlit public-square crèche.
But the best Christmas album of 2013 belongs to Nick Lowe.
Lowe has spent the last 40-plus years skillfully promulgating everything from definitive pub-rock and power-pop to definitive neo-rockabilly and autumnal acoustic introspection, all with a gimlet eye focused on pinpointing both the log in his own eye and the splinter in his neighbor’s. And on Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family (YepRoc), he reaps what he has sown.
More than anything, he and his jauntily rootsy combo sound relaxed, as at peace with both Santa and the Virgin Birth as C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Seamlessly blended cover tunes, traditional numbers, two thought-provoking originals—why, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the secular ends and the sacred begins. But begin the sacred definitely does.